The producers of Polyamory: Married and Dating were presented with a considerable challenge for their opening act; how to, in 30 minutes, not only introduce viewers to polyamory for likely the first time, but also introduce us to two established poly families, provide us with something more than a glimpse into their lives, and show us the unique trials and triumphs of those living a polyamorous lifestyle. Despite those challenges, they got a lot of it right.
Their textbook descriptions of polyamory were solid and positively framed. And, the families they chose represent a nice cross section of America… A married couple, Kamala and Michael, decide to invite their long-time partners, Jen and Tahl, who are also married, to move in with them and then young son, Devin. Anthony and Lindsey are married and living with the third in their triad, Vanessa. Lindsey has just returned home from a 6-month stint at graduate school in Northern California, and is missing her new boyfriend. They're people you might encounter at work or at the grocery store or on vacation and not once guess they might be living a life that's slightly different from the usual dog-and-two-kids existence.
The show is played out in typical reality show fashion. We're a fly on the wall, spying in on the day-to-day lives of both families. The producers frequently cut to studio interviews with families members as they candidly recount their thoughts and feelings of the experience as the drama is happening. Not surprisingly given the tight schedule, editing is extremely fast paced, and important decisions seem to get vetted in mere minutes of conversation, with the focus of the editing being on the greatest points of friction.
That last point is one of the two complaints I have about the show. With strong communication being such a cornerstone of successful polyamorous relationships, the editing style doesn't accurately relate to us all of the conversation that is happening in the cracks. Some of us might be able to fill in the blanks having been there many times ourselves, but I fear much of the non-polyamorous audience will be left feeling that their judgments of polyamory will be justified by the narrow cross-section of the action being played out.
It's also unfortunate there is no room for expert commentary/analysis to the drama being played out. For example, while the triad's veto conversation about Lindsey's new boyfriend provided us an inner look into the kinds of very real conversations that poly families have, audiences would have also been well-served with a discussion about "rules" and how they often serve to coddle fears and create room for misinterpretation and distrust, as is what happened in this case. The triad's ultimate solution, of course, is to jump into bed with each other, despite the lingering questions and doubts. This focus on intense drama, followed by group sexual situations, was definitely cause for concern. It only reinforces the inaccurate notion that polyamorous relationships are only ever tracking the pendulum between fireworks fueled by pain and jealousy on one side, and fireworks fueled by unfettered sexuality on the other.
Fortunately, we're presented with a lovely counterbalance in the quartet of Kamala, Michael, Tahl and Jen. Where Vanessa responds to her unexamined fears and anxieties with a quick and forceful veto, Jen's reacts by openly and calmly expressing her fears, then making a few simple requests for reassurance before jumping in headfirst into the new living arrangement. Though, it's worth noting the lack of closure around her sort-of-request around sleeping arrangements/times with her husband. Jen's pseudo-request is clearly a rule that she's perhaps afraid to admit to, while the other three are ready to dive in and take their relationships to the next level. Based on the second episode previews, this misunderstanding will play out dramatically soon enough. That aside, the quartet has already been shown to demonstrate significantly more skill and care in their communication than the triad.
The next challenge for the producers, now that they've laid the groundwork, is to find ways to compellingly portray the families ironing out their communication, and working together to ensure that everyone's needs are met, creating opportunities for individuals to grow and work through their fears. I'm very interested to see, for example, how the quartet handles fallout from the misunderstanding set up by Jen's aforementioned non-request, and how the producers choose to frame the conversation. Regardless of how it's portrayed, though, I look forward to seeing the wonderful community of experienced non-monogamists and relationship coaches out there quickly jump in to lead the conversations that will no doubt be played out in homes across North America.
Overall, there's good reason to be encouraged, as evident when Kamala emerged from a cuddle pile of the quartet consummating their first night together living under the same roof to ask a still anxious Jen, "What do you need?" It's a tender and honest moment that, for a moment, takes the attention away from the sex and rightly puts the focus on the intense energy that can spiral out of group love and intimacy, and the strength to support that can be drawn from that energy, and fed right back into the group. It's polyamory at its best, and it put a huge exclamation point on the end of the show.
I look forward to next Thursday.